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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Wes pulled back the curtain that served as the door to his treehouse. He dipped his shoulders through the entrance, slouching to pass under the low clearance. There was no place in his house he could escape the daily drama of his mom and stepdad sniping at each other over whatever thing triggered them that day, and all he needed was a quiet spot to get out of the verbal storm. It wouldn’t be for long since they all had a get-together at his friend’s house that evening.
His hideaway and sanctuary was the treehouse that he and his father had built in the woods years ago, before his dad died. Since his dad’s death, a new stepdad moved in, which was fine for a while until his mom and stepdad started fighting. Then the old treehouse became a refuge of tranquility. It and the makeshift camp surrounding it were the ultimate cool when he was seven or eight, but he was thirteen now, and he had other things to do rather than play imaginary adventures in the woods.
If he was honest with himself, he still played imaginary adventures, they had just taken different forms like video games, movies, and recently, a tabletop, role-playing game called MystikQuest. Most of the other kids he knew were entranced with the visual extravaganza of the latest video games which strived to look and feel real. Though definitely cool, Wes felt the high drama of realistic-looking zombies trying to eat you, or gangsters brutally killing each other, or alien monsters trying to rip your head off, was too stressful for what was supposed to be a fun escape. There were times when he enjoyed those video games, but lately, he and his friends had been immersing themselves in an old-fashioned game that utilized written descriptions, vivid imaginations, and rolls of dice to create their fantasy refuge. Wes’s refuge at that particular moment was nothing imaginary, rather the simple solitude of the quiet old treehouse.
His real house sat high on a hill, an acre of yard surrounding it, and several acres of woods separating the valley neighbors. Typical of many Connecticut neighborhoods built prior to the 70s, instead of fences, property lines were marked by tree lines and colonial-age stone walls. Thickets of brush and trees obscured the view of his wooded camp from the house. Despite being within cell tower range, for some reason, the area around his camp was a dead zone for cell signals, so when his parents or friends wanted to reach him, they had to yell from the top of the hill. The camp area was originally designed with a functional fire pit, spear-throwing target, and a rope swing. Over time, the rope snapped and never got replaced, the spear target fell apart, and the fire pit filled with mud and leaves. All that was left was the treehouse.
Wes kept it in good shape, somewhat clean, and supplied it with a few necessities. Since the outdoor elements were harsh on any food-stuffs he left out there, he stocked snacks with hardy packaging. His current treehouse “pantry” consisted of cans of Vienna Sausage, granola bars, bottles of orange soda, and a jar of peanuts. Except for the soda, he didn’t really care about the items he kept there. As long as they stored well, he wasn’t too picky. Food wasn’t usually necessary since he rarely stayed out there long. Eventually, after his parents finished fighting and noticed that their son had been gone a while, either his mom or stepdad would shout down from the hill.
The treehouse floor was made-up of wood planks stolen from the trash heaps of construction sites. Several were smeared with paint, or dripped plaster, and sometimes had splinters that scratched his bare legs if he wore shorts. Today, he wore jeans, so he could stretch out comfortably if he wanted. In his current mood, it felt better to draw up his knees and tuck his face between them.
Several years ago, his dad died in a sudden accident so mysterious, no one understood it. It didn’t allow for a lot of closure. Wes took it better than most kids his age because he had a clinical mind that occupied itself with information, questions, and solutions on a variety of subjects. Most days he would only miss his dad a little. Today was not most days.
Concentrating on just keeping a calm, steady, relaxing breath, the world outside his skin was slowly washing away like chalk on a rainy sidewalk. If it wasn’t for the tiny vibration of the floorboard beneath his haunch, he wouldn’t have noticed something moving in the dark corner of the treehouse.
Wes jerked upright, fearful that a rat or raccoon had taken refuge in his fort. Not that raccoons or rats are normally vicious, but any animal cornered, or perhaps injured, might lash out if it thought it was threatened. There was a long, polished stick within reach that Wes had been working on to create a cool spear, complete with carvings and feathers. The tip was not a separate spearhead, just the wood shaved to a point with a knife. He gripped the spear and drew it to him, careful not to make noise. The animal could probably see him, but if Wes kept his actions smooth and slow, the animal might not panic. With the spear firmly in both hands, and the tip now pointed at the suspicious corner, Wes shifted his body to get on one knee. Taking a quiet, measured breath, he prepared what he was going to do.
What am I going to do? He’d never killed an animal before. Practicing spear-throwing in his camp was just for fun, never intended as training to harm anything.
The treehouse corner was too close to throw the spear, and he was reluctant to lean forward to stab with it. No option sounded good. The only thing that seemed reasonable was to patiently wait for the creature to show itself. Maybe it wasn’t dangerous. Like what? A rabbit? Rabbits don’t climb.
Wes squinted to focus on whatever was scuffling around in the corner. He could make out part of a silhouette. Small furry body, hunched back, some kind of fleshy tail. Way too big for a rat. An opossum? Eww. Those things are gross. And they could be dangerous if panicked. The head turned toward Wes and it had long, pointed ears. Huh? What the heck…? Nothing Wes could recall seeing in any book looked like the thing he was staring at. Well, that wasn’t quite true. In one of his MystikQuest books, there was a… Stop it, dude. This wasn’t some made-up, fantasy goblin in his treehouse. This was something real, and probably dangerous.
Wes steeled himself to either run away or stab it with the spear. If the weird creature made any sudden moves, Wes would defend himself, and if it just sat there, maybe Wes could slowly retreat down the ladder. The problem was that once Wes was on the ladder, how would he be able to hold the spear defensively and still climb down?
These thoughts were circulating through Wes’s mind when the creature’s eyes caught the light filtering through the curtained entryway. The eyes looked human.
And then the creature spoke. “Stay away, boy!” it snarled.
Wes was sure he had heard correctly, there was just no way it was possible. Opossums don’t speak English. Weird opossum things that look like goblins with long ears and human eyes might.
No, dude. No way. It’s a dream or something. You fell asleep.
The low crossbeam above the treehouse threshold bumped the back of Wes’s head as he inched toward the exit. If he was dreaming, the sudden pain would’ve woke him up, and since the weird opossum-goblin was still visible, his dream theory was dispelled.
The opossum-goblin thing spat at him, then spoke again. “I warn you, human. Touch me and die!”
Ok, definitely not dreaming. The hideous little creature seemed fearsome and Wes had no desire to touch it, whatsoever. After all, Wes wasn’t an idiot. He also wasn’t too frightened to do some quick mental deductions. If this thing could attack him, or even run, it probably would’ve already. Wes had been in the treehouse a while and the thing hadn’t moved most of that time. In fact, it had likely been hiding. It could have pounced on Wes at any time without warning, and also could’ve run out the exit before Wes registered its presence. No, this thing was stuck in that corner for some reason. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing since injured animals can be vicious and very dangerous, but this wasn’t any normal animal. Or possibly an animal at all. It speaks English and has human eyes.
Wes had no idea what to do next, so his mouth decided for him. It spoke faster than Wes could stop himself from saying, “What are you?”
If you ask a run-of-the-mill opossum what he is, he likely wouldn’t say, “Well, sir, I’m an opossum of course. Sorry to have frightened you. Please forgive me, and I’ll just get out of your hair.” Nope. He would more likely hiss and scurry, or lumber, away as fast as he could. Wes had no idea how opossum’s moved because he’d never seen a live one. Only dead ones on the side of the road. He assumed that meant they probably didn’t run very fast. But this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill opossum, and Wes figured it would respond in an abnormal way, he just had no clue what that would be. He held his spear tightly and waited.
The creature surprised Wes again. Instead of answering in English, or running away, or attacking, it leaned against the treehouse wall, groaning in what sounded like pain, and began muttering in another language that Wes didn’t recognize. German? Russian? Wes was good at languages, studied Latin and Spanish, a little Japanese, knew some Elvish and Klingon, memorized fun words from his favorite sci-fi TV shows, and liked to invent his own languages just like his hero, J.R.R. Tolkein, did in the epic series “Lord of the Rings.” Despite that, this creature’s language wasn’t familiar, and that bothered Wes even more. Like an opossum-goblin who speaks English isn’t bad enough? It’s multilingual.
Wes screwed up more courage and pushed the spear tip closer to the creature. “Answer me in English!” Wes demanded. God, that sounds so stupid.
The creature snarled again, in no particular language, grumbled something, then spoke in a strained voice, “Stay – away. Will – kill you.”
Wes didn’t buy that. This thing was in no condition to do much of anything, and posturing was possibly its only defense. It could be faking an injury, though Wes didn’t think so. He was a smart kid, so smart he was given special classes at school to advance his thinking. Too smart because it drew a lot of mocking from the other kids: Wesley Walker, the alien brain; Wesley Walker, teacher’s pet; Wuss-ley Walker; Dork. Most mean kids weren’t very creative, and there were a few other uninventive names he was called. Wes never apologized for his intelligence, and shrugged off most insults as best he could, though it never felt good. Any way you sliced it, Wes wasn’t dumb, and though he had the same fears as everyone else, he also evaluated situations quickly and saw options that other people might be blinded to. Right now, he knew the creature was blustering and may not be in a good position to follow through with its threats. Unless, of course, it really was a goblin, and had something like magic.
Seriously, dude? Magic?
Wes picked up a Bic lighter which he used to light campfires. Right now, it would help to see this opossum-goblin better. Might even scare it. Some animals were afraid of fire. He flicked the Bic on.
The creature lifted an arm to shield it from the flame’s light. Its arm-raise looked weak. The arm also looked less like an opossum and more like a monkey. Human-like, hairy, small, and slender. This didn’t help identify the creature any better since there were no monkeys in Connecticut, and certainly, none that spoke English, much less were multilingual. Certain birds could mimic human speech, but Wes had never heard of monkeys, or any other animal, that did it. There were apes who could use sign language, but that still didn’t… Focus, Wes!
The creature in front of him wasn’t a monkey, or an opossum. It was something unknown. Regardless of what Wes thought it might be, it was real, and intelligent enough to speak and understand English. So? So… Wes decided to go with it, accept the situation, and proceed with caution.
“You haven’t answered me,” said Wes in a voice that sounded tougher than he felt. “What are you? Why – why are you in my treehouse?”
The little creature made a wet hiss, sounding like some blockage was in its throat. Wes was about to wave the Bic at it to force better compliance when something suddenly occurred to him. Nobody would believe him when he told whatever story this ended up being. His cell phone was still in his pocket, useless as a phone since his camp was in a dead zone for reception, but the camera on it worked just fine. Wes slipped the phone from his pocket, thumbed the screen and held the phone up in front of the creature. His thumb tapped the virtual button and the camera light popped.
The creature screeched, flailed at the air with its hand, then twisted around in the corner where it cowered. Wes did a cursory check that the picture came out, then he lowered the phone as something else caught his attention. On the creature’s leg, visible now that the creature had twisted around, was a wound. At least, Wes thought it was a wound. The edges of a jagged area of flesh along the creature’s thigh were glowing bright orange, like the wound was a piece of paper being consumed by a flame. As the flesh peeled back from the burning wound, underneath was green goo which glistened on top of what looked like muscles and tendons. Is that its blood? It kinda looks like blood if it wasn’t so – you know, green. The wound kept spreading, the glowing edges expanding like waves. This creature was either being burned alive or consumed by some kind of… Don’t you dare say magic, dude. But it was hard not to say or think the word magic when Wes was witnessing what was right before his eyes. The green blood was now turning to ash as the orange burning edges spread to its body. The wounded leg now appeared to be half the size it had been. The little creature is disintegrating!
Wes held the Bic closer. The creature was probably in too much pain from its smoldering wound to even notice what Wes was doing. Its eyes were closed, teeth were gnashed, and his whole body shook with intense tremors. Despite the little creature’s death threat, Wes hated seeing anything in pain, and was vainly searching for some way to stop the creature’s distress. What could he do? Throw water on it? All he had was orange soda. Throwing orange soda on an open wound sounded like a bad idea.
The little creature shouted something which startled Wes. He wasn’t sure he caught the word correctly until the creature repeated it even louder.
“Master!” it cried.
Me? No, not Wes. The creature peeled its eyelids back, its eyes darted frantically searching for something. Glazed, watering, and almost cross-eyed, it appeared to be seeing nothing. Not the treehouse, not Wes, nothing on this earth. Was the creature going into shock? Wes’s studies at school were far advanced of most eighth-graders, and he knew a little medical stuff and biology. Not a lot, but enough to know that physical trauma can induce shock, and this matched the textbooks even if it was a green-blooded opossum-goblin.
“Master!” it called, pleading to the air. It held out a trembling fist, clutching some kind of rock in its fingers. “I found it, Master! Please! Please come and take it. Please, come…” A shudder went through the creature as it coughed on something wet. “Please,” it gargled. “I can’t – can’t make – can’t get…” Its mouth convulsed, cutting off more words and substituting agonizing sounds.
Wes felt useless, wanting to help even though this thing wasn’t friendly. Perhaps only its pain made it threatening. Wes fumbled around the floor for something to aid the creature, but had nothing he could see that would do any good. He was about to pick up the orange soda and dump it on the creature when something incredible happened in this already inconceivable scene.
The creature exploded in a flash of flame and smoke. Cripes! Wes launched himself against the wall of his treehouse, making the whole structure creak loudly. He yanked up his arms, checking for injury, thankfully seeing none. No burns, no cuts, and not even any green blood from the little thing that exploded. Shouldn’t there be guts and goo all over me? Nothing on his jeans, nothing on his arms, nothing on the floor. Nothing anywhere except glowing embers floating down through the smoky air. As the embers settled and turned grey, an unseen breeze whisked the ashes into an impromptu pile that seemed to be diminishing even as it gathered.
Just like the whole thing had been a weird dream, the opossum-goblin was gone, leaving in its place only a pile of ash that was disintegrating even further. Wes’s mouth was slack, stumped for any utterance that could possibly be appropriate.
“Whoa,” he finally said. Epic words, dude. There was simply nothing to be done or said when a goblin blows up in your treehouse, except apparently say, “Whoa.” Wes got his knees under him and crawled over to where the goblin had just disappeared. The only thing left besides grey ash was that little rock the goblin had held in its hand when it was pleading to its unseen master. The rock didn’t look significant enough to warrant all this fuss. It was just a plain ol’ chunk of…
“Hey,” said Wes aloud. “That’s my arrowhead.”
Wes doubted it was actually an arrowhead, even though it did have the familiar shape, which was why he thought of it that way. The woods of Connecticut could be a treasure trove of relics, sometimes buried under dense dirt or crumbled stone walls. One of Wes’s friends found a stash of musket balls once. At a local flea-market, Wes’s favorite vendor sold ancient stone arrowheads claimed to be unearthed from a new housing project dug up from an old field. Ever since then, the boys made it their mission to dig around for old relics. Wes found the suspected arrowhead under layers of solidified deposits when he dug out his firepit, but he could never be sure if it was a relic or just a worthless rock. He kept it anyway, assuming someday he’d have it checked by someone knowledgeable. And here was his assumed worthless rock the creature had been trying to steal.
Wes picked up the rock. He half expected some magic sensation to course through his hand from the unexpected power the rock may have had. A power that had been there all along, which Wes never knew, yet he creature had known, and had traveled from another dimension to retrieve the magic stone, dying in the attempt to get it to his mysterious master. Sure. Not. Wes felt nothing. It was just a dumb rock. He put it in his pocket.
He wondered how to tell his friends what happened when he heard a distant but familiar voice.
“Wes!” It was his stepfather. “Wes! Time to come in!”
Oh, yeah. Right. There was a party tonight at his friend AJ’s house. Grown-ups only. Wes was familiar with these soirees, happening every couple months or so. Since a lot of people couldn’t get babysitters, or didn’t want to, and many of the kids knew each other anyway, the kids would be thrown in some room together while the parents all hung around drinking and talking loudly, ignoring the kids, assuming they’d have a great time stuck in a room. Yay. So much fun. The good news about tonight was AJ had a basement to himself, decked out in furniture, an old TV, and their favorite movies. However, they weren’t going to be watching movies tonight. They would be playing their MystikQuest game while their parents got plastered upstairs.
Leaning out the treehouse entrance, Wes shouted, “Coming!”
He wondered how he could possibly convince his friends about this bizarre encounter since the only things left were goblin ashes, which looked like regular ashes and were essentially gone anyway, plus the stupid old rock that they already knew about.
“Yeah, but it’s important now” …he’d say.
“Like how?” …they’d say.
Like, I don’t know. He had nothing to prove that anything had happened. Frak! Yes, I do! The cell phone picture.
He picked up the phone and swiped through the gallery. Boom! There it was! The opossum-goblin in all its glory, right there on his phone. Ha! Suddenly, he very much wanted to get to that party.
“Coming!” Wes shouted again. He scrambled down the ladder and sprinted up the hill.
Carpeted basement stairs creaked as Wes pelted down them. A round dining table that occasionally doubled as a poker table was set with stacks of paper, books, a cardboard screen illustrated with fantasy creatures, and several corrals of colored dice. AJ’s house was the best place for the friends to host their MystikQuest games, and tonight’s forced gathering was a good excuse to play.
Three boys sat at the table, two of them, Marc and AJ, waving as Wes careened down the stairs. Initially, he planned to just blurt out what had happened that day, then he decided to be more adult about it and curb his excitement. Wes was determined to appear more adult now that he was an official teenager.
“Hey, Wes,” said Marc. Marc only managed an eye dart and chin nod because AJ was still in process of jawing about some rule of MystikQuest that Marc wasn’t comprehending, and likely didn’t care about.
Marcus “Marc” Stephens was one of the few black kids in Wes’s high school. He was rope thin with narrow shoulders and teeth that were slightly too big for his mouth. Marc’s father had played football in the Canadian professional league before he quit and became a finance manager for a car dealership. Much to his father’s disappointment, Marc hadn’t inherited an ounce of athletic genes. He instead joined the chess club, entered science fairs, played MystikQuest, and wished someday to be a real-life Jedi Knight. His concession to his father was to wear football jerseys, especially when he wanted to get on his dad’s good side. Today’s ensemble was a throw-back jersey from the New York Giants: Phil Simms, number 11, MVP quarterback of Super Bowl 21. Though Wes wasn’t a football fan, his brain soaked up all sorts of information and stored it, enabling him to know lots of things he had little interest in.
“Hey,” said AJ to Wes, with the same chin nod as Marc, but no eye glance. He had inserted the “hey” in the middle of a sentence directed at Marc without much diversion from their topic.
AJ Koepplinger wore a hat with the words, “I DON’T GIVE A…” printed above a cartoon rat and donkey. One of many sarcastic, insulting hats he collected. He had a thick build, roundish face, not necessarily obese, but by no stretch thin. A few small freckles dotted his pale cheeks, which he would deny existed if brought up by anyone.
AJ never paused in his speech to Marc. “Which is why you can’t use the plus one on your attack, bro.”
Marc shook his head. “Stop saying ‘bro’, man. It’s stupid.”
Marc rolled his eyes. “Get a new comeback, AJ. That’s getting old.”
“You’re getting old.”
“Butthead. Why do I still hang out with you?” Marc’s question was valid even though he was chuckling.
“Cuz I’m lovable.”
“Like a rash.”
“You love me, you just won’t admit it.”
“No one in their right mind would admit that.” To tweak him further, Marc leaned toward AJ and enunciated, “Bro.”
AJ rose and leaned toward Marc. “Your mother did last night, bro.”
Marc wrinkled his nose and angled his face away from AJ. “Dude, your breath stinks.”
“You’re breath stinks.”
“No, seriously, dude. Your breath stinks from that…” Marc fluttered his fingers at an empty plate near AJ. “…Whatever that stuff was. Grab a mint, man.”
AJ sat down, not defeated, but no longer as confident. He eyed the plate and shook his head. “They’re just garlic bread bites. What’re you, a vampire?”
“No, dumbass. Garlic stinks, dude.”
AJ shook his head. “Whatever, bruuuh.” AJ made sure to linger on the outgoing breath during the last syllable.
Wes had no idea why Marc didn’t hit AJ in the face when he got this ornery, but for some reason Marc not only tolerated it, he accepted it as how friendship should be with AJ. One either accepted AJ the way he was, or avoided him altogether. He had his decent qualities, though Wes couldn’t remember any at that moment.
Wes rounded the banister and stopped at the table where AJ and Marc were sitting. “Guys, guess what!?” he said, momentarily forgetting that he was supposed to take his excitement down a peg to be more adult.
“You’re finally coming out of the closet?” said AJ, poorly concealing a smirk.
Marc rolled his eyes. “Wassup, Wes?”
Wes was about to launch into his big reveal when he noticed who the other person was sitting at the table. The boy was small and skeletal, looked downright unhealthy, with pale skin and paler blond hair randomly spiked from lack of interest in combing it, plus thick glasses that gave him bug-sized eyes. He was AJ’s half-brother, Schroeder. Three years younger than AJ, Schroeder rarely hung out with AJ’s friends because of the custody visitation schedule. He didn’t even go to AJ’s school. The three friends went to the same junior high and were similar in age: AJ was fourteen, Marc was almost fourteen, and Wes was thirteen. Schroeder was eleven and went to an out-of-state school. Just over the New York border was a school for special needs kids where Schroeder’s mother had enrolled him a few years ago after he tested on the autistic scale, and was also identified as a potential savant. After AJ’s mom ran off, Schroeder’s mom became the rebound woman for AJ’s dad. Unlike when AJ’s mom left, Schroeder’s mom took her son with her. Mr. Koepplinger had several live-in girlfriends since then, the latest had been there three months. AJ ignored most of them. Schroeder’s mom hadn’t meant anything to AJ, though he did have a soft spot in his heart for Schroeder. AJ was many things, including protective of his half-brother, though no one would know by listening to the two of them go at it.
Schroeder clenched his knees to his chest like he was cannonballing into a pool, not bothering to glance up at Wes. Unwavering in his focus on the papers in front of him.
“So, what up, DJ Double Dubs?” said AJ, raking in several dice.
The odd nickname was one of many poor attempts by AJ to convert Wes’s name, or in this case initials, into something hip-hop sounding. For whatever reason, AJ considered himself a hip-hop gangster, even though he was shunned by every clique in school, including the hip-hop crowd. The three friends were all social outcasts to one degree or another, which was why they worked so well together.
“I kinda got something important to tell you,” said Wes, able to deliver that message much more placidly than his last statement. Wes scanned the room, glancing again at Schroeder.
AJ caught Wes’s gaze and said, “What? It’s cool, he won’t nark.”
His two friends probably assumed Wes had some gossip about somebody from school. He shook his head. “No, it’s something serious. Just between us.”
AJ shrugged like it meant nothing, and Marc merely glanced at Schroeder and said impatiently, “What?”
Schroeder didn’t so much as lift an eyelid in their direction. Whatever world he was lost in, he was deep inside it.
Wes sighed. “Alright, listen, you guys have to swear you won’t tell a soul what I’m going to tell you. Ok?” Marc and AJ darted their eyes to each other and gave a cautious nod, which looked very questionable to Wes. “Swear!” demanded Wes.
“Yeah, ok, man.,” said Marc.
“Fine, dude,” said AJ, simultaneous with Marc.
“You guys remember the treehouse in my old camp? You know, where we used to throw spears around and stuff?”
“Yeah?” said AJ, hands splayed in exasperation.
“I found something in my treehouse. And I know you’re not going to believe me, but you have to believe me. Ok?
AJ stood up, “Bro, listen.” He had a paternal smirk on his face and placed two palms on Wes’s shoulders. “You can’t say ‘you gotta believe me’ after you say ‘you’re not gonna believe me.’ No one’s gonna believe you.”
AJ patted Wes’s shoulders. Wes looked at Marc who was trying to refrain from agreeing, but he gave in and scrunched his face while nodding.
AJ continued, “You gotta sell it, ya know? Like this. Guys, there’s this incredible thing I have to tell you, and I swear I’ll eat my mother’s panties if I’m lying.”
Marc’s face scrunched tighter. “Gross, dude.”
“Knock it off,” said Wes, pushing AJ’s hands away.
AJ backed up, arms raised in mock surrender.
“This is serious,” said Wes, pausing before adding, “damn it!”
AJ’s mouth went into a wide “O” shape. He slapped the table. “Oh, shit. He’s cussin’! He’s breakin’ out the cuss words. Everybody duck, he’s gonna blow!”
Marc rolled his eyes. He, better than AJ, understood how distressing it was for Wes to swear. Wes confessed to Marc once how his dad had said that words were powerful, and to always choose them carefully. Wes interpreted that to include swearing and lying. “Blow yourself, AJ,” said Marc.
AJ wiggled both sets of fingers then slapped one hand against his rump. He blew Marc a silent kiss.
Marc shook his head. “Come on, Wes. What’s so important?”
Wes wanted to slap the cell phone down with the display already beaming the glorious truth of his discovery. However, it took a few moments to swipe the screens and get to the pic.
AJ’s fingers thrummed the table while he did. “Better be a naked pic of your mom,” he said.
“Dude!” said Marc.
“What? His mom’s hot.”
Wes ignored the comment and held the phone to his chest, the goblin pic displayed, but not yet turned toward them. “Like I said, I found something in my treehouse. I thought it was just an animal at first, but…” Wes paused for emphasis while he began to turn the phone around. “But then it spoke. In English.”
The phone was carefully set down upon the table like it was an egg that would break. Wes proceeded with a short version of his confrontation with the goblin, which had been brief anyway, and waited for the revelation to seize his friends. They both stood up and crowded next to him to see the image better, but neither erupted in any kind of show of amazement or wonder. In fact, they both looked only mildly curious.
“That’s pretty cool. Where did you get this?” asked Marc.
Where’d I get it? I just said…
“It’s like a retarded version of Dobby,” said AJ. “Probably computer generated. Lighting sucks.”
“What? It’s real!” cried Wes.
“Nah, come on,” said AJ. “Right there, in its eye, there’s a reflection of the production team holding the boom. It’s not bad, but it’s fake.”
“That’s me holding my phone, you moron! And they can’t have production reflections on computer characters because they’re made in the – freakin’ computer! But this goblin isn’t from a computer, it was in my treehouse!”
“Ok, ok, man. Power down the guns,” said Marc, stepping between Wes and AJ. “S’all good, dude.”
Wes was grinding his teeth. He assumed other people might not believe him, but surely not his best friends. “It – is – real,” he said through gritted teeth. “I spoke to it, it threatened me, and I took its freaking picture to prove to you – dorkwads that I wasn’t lying.” Get a grip, Wes. It’s pretty hard to believe anything nowadays just by a photo. But what else did he have? The rock? Though he had brought it with him, what good would that do?
AJ slapped a hand on Wes’s back. “Awright, Dubster. Pull the panties out of your crack. So, where is this goblin thing now?”
“I never said it was a goblin.”
“Yeah, you – uh, just did a second ago,” said Marc.
I did? Frak. “Ok, I don’t know what it is – or was, but it just kinda looked like – you know?”
“A wizard’s goblin familiar from the MystikQuest Beast Book?” offered Marc.
“Yes! Thank you. I’m not saying it is, you know, it just – looks like one.”
“Kinda. A little, I guess.” Marc pulled the phone closer.
AJ put a hand on his hip. “Ok, fine, so where’s the thing now?”
Wes let out a long quivering sigh. “It’s gone. It died and disintegrated.”
“Uh huh,” said AJ, patronizingly. “Of course, it disappeared.”
Wes felt numb. “After it exploded.”
“Even better,” AJ deadpanned. He placed a surprisingly gentle hand on Wes’s shoulder. “Bro, if you want us to believe this story, you gotta bring something else to the table.”
The rock was clutched in Wes’s fist. He slid it out of his pocket. In a defeated voice, he said, “It was holding this.”
AJ plucked it from Wes’s hand. “A rock?”
“Arrowhead. I think.” Wes hung his head. “I don’t know. Probably just a rock.”
“Whatever,” said Marc. “Why would it want it?”
“I don’t know,” said Wes, fighting back the urge to scream. The most amazing, significant thing in his life just happened that afternoon and no one was going to believe him. His heart was palpitating.
“Oh, jeez, here he goes,” said AJ. He turned Wes’s shoulders and wrapped his arms around them. “Come on, bro, no crying. Don’t be a wuss.”
Despite the taunt, the hug was welcome. But Wes wasn’t that close to crying. He was more pissed off, now, heat rising to his face and scalp. “I’m not gonna cry, and I don’t care what you guys think. I know what I saw.”
AJ patted Wes’s back like he was an infant, which was the last straw for Wes.
Wes snatched the arrowhead-rock from AJ and gripped it in clawed fingers. AJ once again raised his hands in mock surrender. Blood pounded under Wes’s temples as he drew back his fist.
“Jesus! Don’t!” shouted Marc. “He’s an ass, but he ain’t worth it.”
Wes wasn’t intending to punch anyone, it was just his poor attempt at a throwing stance. He slung the rock against the concrete wall. Though AJ’s dad had long ago dressed up the basement with carpet and furniture, most of the walls were simple concrete with a layer of tan paint. The rock careened off the wall, a sharp snap and thump sounding as it first impacted concrete, then the carpet.
“Uh, awrighty. What was that?” said AJ.
“I don’t know!” said Wes, blood draining from his flushed face. “Just felt like it. Probably worthless anyway. Stupid goblin was delusional.”
“Sure. The goblin was delusional,” said AJ, backing up toward where the rock landed.
“Wes. Seriously, it’s ok,” said Marc. “Jeez, dude I thought you were gonna cave AJ’s head in.”
AJ bent down to pick up the rock. “Gee. Love you too.”
Marc rotated Wes to face him. “Ok, look, I don’t know what you saw, and I believe you saw something, but – I mean, the picture’s kinda too perfect, dude. You didn’t have to make that part up to…”
“It’s – real! Come on, I’m not lying.”
From the back of the room, AJ said in a soft tone, “Uh, guys?”
Oblivious, Wes and Marc stared at each other. Marc said, “Dude, I wanna believe you, but – but…”
“But, what? I can’t lie, Marc. You know me! I suck at it. I can’t lie to save my life.”
Marc dropped his gaze to consider this.
AJ again said, louder, “Guys?”
Marc nodded, still ignoring AJ. “Ok, ok, I hear ya. But, ya gotta admit that…”
“Guys!” shouted AJ.
“What!?” said Marc and Wes together.
AJ took a step toward them, concentrating on the rock in his hand. A soft green glow came from his palm. “You seriously need to see this.”
“We just saw it,” said Marc.
“Yeah, but – there’s something inside this thing.”
“AJ, man, if you mess around with this dude’s head any more, I swear I’m gonna…”
“Nah, bro. I’m deadass. Look.”
AJ held the rock between his fingers and presented it to the two boys. A pinprick of green light came from a crack in the rock.
Marc stared in disbelief. Wes felt a shiver go through his veins. And AJ stretched a grin across his broad face. “So – what did that goblin guy say again?”
The story of the treehouse goblin was retold, this time with livelier discussion. Though nobody had a clue what it all meant, that didn’t stop the rampant speculation.
“What if it really was a wizard’s goblin familiar?” said Marc.
“Where the hell would wizards come from? Or goblins?” said AJ.
Marc shrugged. “Maybe they live in the woods.”
“Goblins or wizards?”
More shrugging from Marc. “Both? Either?”
“Nah, we’ve all been all over those woods and never saw…”
“Guys,” interrupted Wes. “Focus. One thing at a time, ok?”
Everything needed to be separated into factual details, not assumptions. Just because the creature looked like the Beast Book version of a wizard’s goblin familiar, didn’t mean it truly was. Stick to the facts. The creature was not any kind of animal that textbooks could explain, especially since it spoke English and possibly some other language. It had green blood. Its wound could’ve been a burn, though Wes’s description made it sound more mysterious. And the fact that it exploded into embers and disappeared altogether was pretty significant. It was hard not to use the term “magic” when referring to the circumstances, but the boys were also trying not to jump to conclusions from the limited details Wes had witnessed.
The only material and examinable thing was the rock. Or whatever it was. The sliver of green light emitting from the crack made by Wes’s tantrum was an inviting mystery that they didn’t know what to do with.
“What if we just throw it at the wall again? See if it opens up more?” suggested AJ.
“What if that damages it? Or destroys it?” said Marc.
“Worked the first time,” said AJ.
“No, Marc’s right,” said Wes. “That was stupid. Dumb luck. We gotta be more careful with this thing.”
AJ clapped his hands together and donned a big smile. “Hey! My dad keeps some tools down here. There’s a bunch of pliers and a vice, I think. If we’re real careful, maybe we could break off the outer crust, or something.”
“I – I don’t know, AJ,” said Wes, suddenly nervous. “I mean, anything we do could damage it, or release some kind of – I don’t know.”
AJ ignored Wes’s concern and went into a corner to rummage through a toolbox. He came back with several instruments.
Wes took a step back. “Seriously, dude. I don’t know.”
“Aw, come on. Whatever’s inside is the important stuff,” argued AJ. “This could be, like, proof of the existence of magic, or something. There’s no way to find out what it is unless we – you know, open it up and see it for real.”
Wes opened his mouth without a good rebuttal.
Marc placed a hand on Wes’s shoulder. He made a playful grimace, “It hurts to say it, but I actually agree with AJ on this one.”
“Thank you!” said AJ with a crooked grin.
“Don’t get used to it,” said Marc.
AJ blew a raspberry. “Whatever.”
He approached Wes, waggling a pair of pliers. Wes curled his fingers around the rock, taking another step back.
“It’s just… I – I don’t know,” nervously muttered Wes.
Marc was leaning closer to put his whole arm around Wes’s shoulder when AJ cut him off.
“Wait a sec,” said AJ, holding Marc back with a stiff-arm.
“Huh?” uttered Marc, surprised by AJ’s tactic.
Wes barely noticed the interaction. He was taking another half-step backward, eyes focused on the rock in his palm.
AJ leaned toward Marc, conspiratorially. In a near whisper, he said, “What if that thing is like, you know, The One Ring from Mordor, and it messes with Wes’s brain, and he turns evil and stuff?”
“What?” said Marc, shaking his head. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“You know?” AJ made gravely, croaking sounds in his throat. “Gollum, Gollum. Yes, my precious.”
“Dude,” said Marc, using the word as a combination answer and admonition. He looked at Wes who still hadn’t lifted his eyes. Marc hunched down to put his eyes within Wes’s view. “Wes?” He snapped his fingers. “Wes!”
Wes blinked and his head snapped up. “What?”
“You ok?” asked Marc.
“Yeah?” The answer came out like a question. “Why?”
Marc shook his head, “You’re just acting weird.”
“Weird? Really?” said Wes sarcastically. “I don’t know, maybe cuz there’s this thing in my hand that a freakin’ goblin died for, maybe it’s magic, or dangerous, maybe it could kill all of us, who knows what it can do, and you guys just wanna break it open and see what happens?”
AJ waggled the pliers again and shrugged. “Well – yeah. But we’ll use these.”
Wes scrunched his face, incredulous. “How is that ok?”
“We’ll be careful,” said Marc.
Wes shook his head. “Like how?” Wes was covering the rock hand with his other hand, clutching both to his chest.
“I don’t know. Just, you know, careful.” AJ put his hands on his hips. “You got a better plan?”
Admittedly, Wes knew they needed to discover what this thing genuinely was, and he had no alternatives to offer on how best to do it. There had to be something better than crushing the thing like a walnut with blunt pliers.
He sighed. “What other tools does your dad have?”
AJ made a curt nod and smiled. “Bunch of stuff.”
From the table, a shy voice said, “Dremels are precise.”
All three boys turned to look at Schroeder, who was holding a small cylindrical device. He pressed a button and the device whirred and whined. It sounded like a dental drill. Wes had forgotten Schroeder was even in the room.
AJ nodded enthusiastically. “Hell, yeah! The Dremel. My dad uses it for really delicate stuff. It’s got a diamond-tipped bit. It’ll carve through anything.”
AJ went over to retrieve it from Schroeder, who looked uncomfortable holding the drill and handed it over without argument. Marc followed AJ over to the table, reluctantly followed by Wes.
The Dremel was a craftsman’s tool, small enough to hold without an extra handle. It had a black cylindrical shape, with a cord coming from one end and the other end wielding a conical steel nose tipped with a strange bit that Wes had never seen before. The bit looked like a steel toothpick that had a minuscule disco ball on the end.
AJ held up the drill for the others who had gathered around. “It’s got a diamond tip that’s super precise. If this doesn’t do the job, nothing will.” He snapped the drill on and off, revving the little motor for emphasis. Wes winced from the sound, reminding him of a dentist.
“We can put it in the vice and maybe – I guess, carve off the outer layers,” said Marc.
“Yeah. Come on, Wes. Please?” AJ pleaded.
Wes looked at the unnatural light coming from the crack. Lost in all the enthusiasm for this thing being magic was the possibility that the strange glowing may be from a more explainable source. Could it be radioactive? What would uranium, or radium, or something similar look like? He was good at chemistry and knew a lot about real elements, but had never seen a radioactive isotope up close before, and wondered if it could look something like this.
“Listen, guys, let’s think about this for a second,” said Wes, trying to sound adult. “What if this isn’t magic, but, like, radioactive? Maybe the rock’s crust could be shielding us from the effects. So, if we were to remove it…”
“It wouldn’t make a difference,” said Schroeder, flatly. He looked neither interested nor disinterested in the conversation, with a blank expression and a distant gaze. One hand absently stroked the other folded arm. “Radioactive isotopes can only be shielded by something as dense as lead. That crust isn’t lead. So, it’s either already affected us or it isn’t radioactive at all.”
AJ and Marc shot a glance at each other, then simultaneously looked at Wes. Wes reluctantly nodded. “He’s probably right. If it’s really radioactive, we’d already have been exposed for a while.”
“Uh huh,” said AJ, looking skeptical. “Does that mean I’m gonna piss green, or turn into a superhero?”
“It means you’ll die,” said Wes.
“Oh,” said AJ, lowering the drill, his exuberant mood evaporating.
Marc seemed to have an epiphany. “Crap! Maybe that’s what happened to the goblin.”
Wes was feeling a tad more confident. He always did when the subject ventured into things he had studied. “No, that’s not what radiation does. And I don’t think he was killed by the rock. Something else got him.”
The three other boys focused on Wes expectantly, probably waiting for his theory on what the rock was. But as Wes had said before, one thing at a time. One boy at a time, Wes met each of their eyes.
“Let’s drill this thing,” he said.
“Yes!” said Marc, clapping.
Strangely, AJ now looked less certain. “Sure. Yeah, ok. I mean, if you think it’s safe, an’ all.”
Marc shot AJ a severe look. “What? A minute ago you wanted to throw it against the wall. You wussin’ out?”
“Hmm? Me? No! No, nuh uh.” AJ rubbed his fingers on the drill’s shell, suddenly interested in its minute details. “You know, just wanna be careful, like you guys said.”
Wes shook his head. “It’s not an isotope. It’s something unexplained right now, so – we either open it and find out or – give it to someone who knows what to do with it.”
Marc grinned and tapped a quick tattoo on the table with his fingertips. Everyone looked at AJ.
A brief moment of indecision passed over AJ’s face before he broadcasted a carefree expression. “Yeah, no, that’s cool. I’ll just get the vice to hold it down and… Yeah, we’ll, uh, drill it, and, uh, should be fine. Totally fine.”
AJ was fishing around in his father’s tool chest for a moment before Schroeder announced, “Someone’s coming.”
Everyone froze for a second or two before the room erupted into voices all speaking at once.
“Act like we’re playing the game!”
“Where’s the dice?”
“Where’s the story quest?”
The boys scrambled to sit down at the table, placing the MystikQuest game items around them in the pretense that they had been immersed in their game the whole time.
Feet thumped upstairs, muffled voices grew closer to the basement door. Whoever it was seemed to be talking near the door before coming down.
The boys weren’t sure whether to launch into random game-appropriate chatter, or just sit tight, listen, and wait.
AJ reached for the story quest next to Wes and slid the book to himself since he was acting as Quest Master. He examined the cover.
“Aw, man,” he said in a whisper. “Not this thing again. Why’d you bring this one? It sucks.”
Wes furrowed his brows and answered in a whisper. “I like it. It’s cool.”
Marc spoke at normal volume. “You guys don’t have to whisper. They know we’re down here, and they wouldn’t know what we’re talking about anyway.”
AJ rolled his eyes. At normal volume, he said. “This quest sucks. Didn’t you bring any other ones?”
The footsteps and voices got suddenly louder.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Marc. “Just start playing whatever that one is.”
The upstairs door opened. Three voices barged in. One was Mr. Koepplinger’s current girlfriend, and the other two weren’t immediately recognizable.
“…And we’ll call you up for cake later,” said the girlfriend to the two other unknown people. Louder, she said, “AJ? We have some more friends joining you.”
More friends? We don’t have any other friends.
A sullen-looking teenage girl, arms tightly crossed, tromped to the bottom of the stairs. Following her was an older boy, hands in the pockets of his leather jacket, less sullen than the girl, but plainly disappointed to be there. He descended two-thirds of the stairs before making a seat of one of the steps. Wes recognized both kids.
Tyler Hanson was a sophomore in high school, played varsity baseball, dressed in hip, mall clothes, and had perfectly styled brown hair that swept up and back like someone from a boy-band. He was accepted in the popular circles, but didn’t seem to hang out consistently with any particular crowd, though he would occasionally talk to some of the same geeky acquaintances Wes knew, which was weird. The popular kids mocked the geeks and the geeks mocked the popular kids. The twain shall not meet, except for Tyler. He was a free agent that didn’t seem to care for any clique. His posse of friends didn’t have defined labels either.
Katie Hanson was in Wes’s junior high, but they didn’t have any classes together. Besides her brother, she had few friends, most of them goth or emo, and tended to keep away from public view. Wes had never seen Katie happy, or even amused, unless she was being sarcastic or insulting someone. She had a slender shock of pink hair framing her face, with the rest dyed ebony black, and a similar shade of lipstick to match her overall dark style. Her clothes were a statement: black rubber and crystal bracelets, black tank-top with red plaid over-shirt tied at her waist, black leggings, and black ankle-high Chucks sneakers. Wes didn’t know too many thirteen-year-old girls who were allowed to wear the heavy amount of make-up that emos like Katie wore, but he wasn’t one to judge anyone’s style. He didn’t have a style he was personally aware of, although he seemed to be recognized as a geek or nerd wherever he went based on his outward appearance. What’s a nerd style? He straightened up in his chair, smoothing down the wrinkles in his “Middle-earth’s Annual Mordor Fun Run” T-shirt. Katie wasn’t the kind of person Wes would normally seek as a friend, but she was a cute girl despite her emo ‘tude, and cute girls got reflexive reactions from boys, period. AJ and Marc got a little taller in their chairs as well.
Schroeder was the first one to notice that it was way too quiet in the room. That, or he really assumed they were playing the MystikQuest game. “I don’t have a character,” he said.
Marc snapped out of his distraction. “Remember, you’re the – uh, the…” He waved his hand discreetly at AJ.
AJ grumbled behind gritted teeth, “This quest blows,” then quickly added louder, “Schroeder, you’re a halfling thief named Giddle Goodfoot.”
Marc cocked an eyebrow and bent his mouth like he was about to say, “what?” AJ presumedly understood the unspoken question. He held up the slender booklet showing the title of the story quest: “The Witch Queen of Morduum.”
“Oh, that one,” said Marc, less than pleased.
“S’why I was complaining,” sulked AJ. “Marc, same as last time, you’re the human warrior, Taurus Thorne.”
Wes frowned. “What’s so wrong with the quest? It’s a cool quest.”
“It’s a lame rip-off of ‘Lord of the Rings,’” said AJ. “Wes, you’re the wizard, Elyssian, again.”
Wes was ruffled by the first remark. “It’s not a rip-off! Just cuz a few things are similar – it’s got totally different stuff in it.”
AJ shook his head. “Stuff ripped-off from every other fantasy story ever, and not even good rip-offs. Freakin’ gay as crap.”
“You’re such a homophobe, AJ,” said Marc.
“Am not, ya fag.” AJ’s mouth was bent in a clownish grin. It was his go-to expression when he wanted to ensure his mockery was seen as a joke. AJ’s favorite uncle was gay and AJ loved the guy, and as far as Wes knew, AJ didn’t care about anyone’s sexual orientation. He liked to insult everyone equally, all creeds and colors, just because he liked the reaction he got and thought it made him cool. As said before, one either took AJ as he was, or avoided him altogether.
“I don’t want to be a halfling,” said Schroeder.
“Tough orc titties,” said AJ. “The only other character left is the girl elf warrior.”
“I don’t want to be a girl,” said Schroeder.
“Which is why I said you’re the halfling,” huffed AJ.
“I don’t want to be a halfling,” said Schroeder.
“Jesus, Joseph, and James T. Kirk,” AJ sighed. “You can only use the characters made for the story, and all the other characters in this lame quest are taken.” He glared at Wes and said, “See?”
Wes grimaced and searched the page in front of him. “What about the druid?”
“I’m the druid,” said AJ.
“Ok, then – what about the, uh – the half-ogre?”
“He was killed last time we played,” said Marc.
AJ nodded without looking at Marc.
“Then, uh – let’s just start the quest over when the half-ogre is alive,” suggested Wes.
“Uh – cheating,” said AJ.
Marc squinted and gritted his teeth. Without opening his jaw, he said in a hissing whisper, “We have bigger things to worry about, AJ. So, right now, let’s just play the stupid game.”
“Fine, whatever,” said AJ, then flipped a few pages of the booklet. “Schroeder, you’re the half-ogre.”
“I like druids,” said Schroeder, sliding the druid character’s page toward him.
“I’m the druid,” said AJ, snatching back the page. “Be the ogre, or I’ll make you a transvestite orc.”
“There’s no such thing,” said Schroeder. “Orc genders are considered definitive, and in no cases have there ever been…”
“It’s a joke and no one cares, Schroeder,” grumbled AJ.
Though AJ was harsh to his half-brother, the sentiment wasn’t completely unshared. Wes had only met Schroeder a few times and had to admit the boy had a penchant for reciting unwanted information or announcing awkward observations at embarrassing moments. AJ just delivered all his comments with a sledgehammer instead of tact.
A voice came from the stairwell. “What are you guys doing?” It was Tyler, who seemed more perturbed than interested.
Wes answered, hoping the question was from curiosity about the game rather than their suspicious behavior. “Oh, you know, same stuff we’ve been doing all afternoon. Nothing else. Just this game.” God, I am terrible at lying. Wes pushed the stone a little deeper into his pocket as he spoke. “Uh, which is called MystikQuest. It’s a role-playing game where we use dice and characters to complete a story quest. This one is about an evil witch who is trying to take over the land of Mesoteria by defeating the kingdom of Arkadia. There’s orcs and…”
“Don’t really care,” said Tyler, holding his hands up in surrender. “Sorry I asked.” He sighed and looked away, agitated about something that, if Wes had a guess, had nothing to do with them.
“Yeah, well, the game’s only for cool people,” said AJ, playing the politician. “So, we’ll just get back to the…”
“No one is the elf girl,” said Schroeder, turning his head toward Katie.
“Uh, well, we didn’t have enough people last time,” said Marc, nervously darting his eyes to Katie, who hadn’t glanced their direction. “And the game gives you the option of writing off characters, so she wasn’t in the party before. Let’s just skip her. Kay?”
“But we have enough players now. She should be the elf warrior,” said Schroeder, pointing at Katie, unfazed by Marc’s deflection.
Wes shook his head slightly, Marc did the same, and AJ tried to press Schroeder’s hand down to the table.
Katie never so much as shifted an eye in their direction, focusing only on her iPhone and said, “Dream on, deekis. I’m not interested in your stupid game.”
Schroeder didn’t seem to register the insult, he just looked back to his character sheet.
“There ya go,” said AJ, gathering up a handful of dice. “Elf girl stays home and Snapchats while everyone else gets on with the game.”
Katie glanced up from her phone briefly. “You know that, like, everyone at school thinks you’re losers for playing that stupid game, right?”
“Aren’t you out of your coffin early, Vampira? The sun’s still up,” AJ shot back.
Katie gave AJ a murderous glare.
Everyone was surprised when Tyler snorted, trying to hold back a laugh. Katie’s attention left AJ and focused on her brother. He held out a placating palm.
“Sorry,” he said, drowning the last of his chuckle. “It was kinda a good burn, though.”
AJ raised his brows, though he remained silent.
Katie rolled her eyes and lifted her iPhone in front of her face. She tried to look indifferent, but Wes saw the corner of her mouth quiver.
Tyler might have seen it too because he stood up and descended two more steps. “You dish it out a bit, sometimes, Katie. Ya know?”
“Leave me alone,” said Katie, curling her knees up and angling herself away from everyone.
Tyler turned to the other boys and shrugged. AJ shrugged back, looking surprised.
Marc tried to change the subject. “Hey, it’s all good. Let’s play, man,” he said, trying to get AJ’s attention.
AJ obliged by gathering up some dice and rolling them.
Wes kept thinking about the little mouth quiver he saw on Katie’s face. Though he was no psychiatrist, he absorbed all sorts of information, and he liked to use his knowledge in real-world scenarios. There was something about this situation that he felt he recognized. The girl who tried so hard to be an outsider because she believed nobody wanted her around. Defensive personality, proactively driving others away to excuse why she was outcast and miserable.
Wes spoke to Katie, “Don’t mind them. We can play something different if you want to join us.”
AJ and Marc looked stunned.
Katie’s eyes flashed to Wes for the briefest moment before she turned away and tucked her legs tighter to her chest.
Wes had no idea how to respond, and worried he had made things worse, so he gave up and turned back to his friends. He reflexively rubbed his legs with his palms, rolling over the lump in his pocket made by the rock. Marc just gave a “whatcha gonna do” expression and straightened the character sheets in front of him. AJ bit back a smile and raked in the dice he had just rolled. Schroeder ignored everyone.
AJ announced, “Ok, so magically the half-ogre isn’t dead anymore, and skipping back a little bit, we’re in Fyrnig Forest again. Marc, your character, Taurus, is the first to reach the stone ruins of an ancient circle. It appears to be deserted. There’s some writing on the large stone in the middle of the circle.”
“Ok, lessee. Uh, can the druid do a check for nearby creatures? He can feel them, right?” asked Marc.
“Yeah,” said AJ, dropping a twenty-sided die on the table. “He doesn’t sense anything.”
“Cool,” said Marc. “Do I recognize the writing on the stone?”
“No,” said AJ.
“Ok, uh, Wes, you got a translation spell?”
Wes searched his sheets. “Maybe,” he said, absently fingering the rock in his pocket. As he did, he noticed a strange heat in his fingertips. A moment later, his hip was burning where the rock rested. He stood up, slapping at the spot. “Frak!”
“What?” asked Marc.
“I don’t…” started Wes, unable to finish his sentence because the burning had suddenly increased in intensity, becoming unbearable. The need to keep the rock secret was overridden by the need to stop the burning. As Wes dug his fingers into his pocket, they were met by searing heat. “Ahhh!” He yanked his hand back, shaking off the pain. Almost immediately, the pain priority switched back to his leg. Unable to touch the burning thing, or get it out of his pocket, Wes started dancing on his tiptoes, fumbling with his zipper.
“What the…?” said Marc.
“Something smells bad,” said Schroeder.
A moment later, a flash of flame and wisp of smoke came from Wes’s pocket. Abandoning the stuck zipper, he tried to yank the pocket away from his skin. A smoldering hole appeared in his jeans, revealing that the rock had become a glowing ember, heat waves rippling from its surface. The ember tumbled from the hole in Wes’s pocket and bounced off a bookshelf onto the carpeted floor. It abruptly came to rest, sizzling through the carpet fibers and sending up grey smoke.
Ignoring the significance of the rock becoming red-hot on its own, AJ cried out, “Shit! It’s burning the carpet! My dad’ll kill me.”
Tyler appeared from seemingly nowhere and dumped a glass of water on the rock. Considering that the glowing rock hadn’t caught on fire by conventional means, Wes wasn’t anticipating water would douse the magical burning thing. However, it did precisely that, turning the rock almost instantly back to grey, and shooting a puff of thick steam into the air.
“What the hell?” said Marc.
Everyone except Katie and Schroeder began to gather around the steaming rock. No longer glowing, the rock should’ve looked the way it had before, but it seemed to have morphed into a new shape with lumps, crevices, and bubbles that resembled a cooled lava rock. It had scorched an area of the carpet around its perimeter.
“Wow,” murmured Wes, rubbing the sore skin of his hip through the hole in his pants.
AJ shook his head. “You think it’ll catch on fire again?”
No one knew what in the world happened, much less what still might. But the rock wasn’t currently on fire, so perhaps whatever it was doing, it was done. Wes bent down to get a closer look.
A crackling sound came from the rock and everyone jumped a little. Katie had joined the group and leaned her head in. “What is that thing?”
AJ spread out his arms to press people back. “It might be hatching!”
“Come on, it’s not an…” started Wes, then stopped himself. He was going to say “egg” until he considered that he had no idea whether it was or wasn’t.
A moment later, his confusion grew. The rock exterior split again, then splintered into a spider web of smaller cracks. Oh, my god, it is hatching! A small spray of dust shot out of the new crevices, and an unknown force within caused the rock to wobble. Like some supernatural thing bursting from a cocoon, shards of rock hull shot off and made a rubble circle around the exposed object. A wave of air whooshed through the room, ruffling everyone’s clothes and hair.
“Whoa!” said Marc, stumbling backward a step.
Free from the crust that had encased it, a glowing green gem, bound in a metal design, beamed brightly up, bathing the kids’ faces in pale light.
Sneakers scrambled backward, leaving Wes the closest person to the glowing artifact.
“Wes! Get back,” called Marc.
Wes was caught between panic and amazement. Both feelings canceled each other out and he stood numb and still.
“What the hell is that!?” said Tyler.
“It looks like jewelry,” said Schroeder.
“Did you see what thing did?” asked Marc. “It’s, like, alive or something.”
“Don’t touch it, dude!” yelled AJ.
Wes was wondering who AJ was addressing when he suddenly noticed himself, as if it was an out of body experience, bent over, in process of reaching for the glowing object. Jeez! He jerked his hand back and stood straight up.
“Come on, man, get back,” said Marc, spreading his arms wide to move everyone else as well. “Give it some space.”
AJ had scrambled off and returned with something that looked like giant tongs. His hands were covered in oversized gloves. “Clear out. Let’s go. Jesus, Wes, back off.” Wes finally took several steps back and AJ aimed the giant tongs down at the bright object on the floor. “I got nowhere to put this thing. Somebody get me a container.”
Marc ran to the cabinets in the corner of the room.
The tips of AJ’s tongs approached the object, resembling a slow-motion video of a crocodile lunging at a bird.
“Careful, AJ,” said Wes.
“Gee, really?” said AJ.
One tong shoveled its way under the object, rolling it a few degrees. The kids all gasped simultaneously. When nothing else happened, there was a collective breath.
“Ok, here goes,” said AJ.
The tong tips came together with the glowing object pinched in between. Nothing flamed or exploded.
“Container!” called AJ.
“Got it!” answered Marc.
Marc was standing near the table they had been using for MystikQuest. In the center was a steel cylinder. The crowd surged back quickly as AJ wheeled around, tongs in hand, then everyone followed him as he walked stiffly to the table and positioned the tongs above the cylinder. Opening the tips just a little, the object wobbled, then dropped, clinking inside the cylinder. Only then did Wes notice what special container had been chosen to carry the monumentally amazing artifact.
“A Thermos?” said Wes, reading the name brand aloud.
“There wasn’t anything else,” said Marc, both defensive and nervous. “We need like a lead box on poles, or something, but we don’t have anything like that.”
Nothing else had happened, despite the manhandling of the artifact. AJ leaned his face over the Thermos opening.
“Careful, man!” said Tyler. “It might be, I don’t know, radioactive.”
Marc and Schroeder said simultaneously, “It’s not.”
Schroeder offered further explanation. “A radioactive isotope would’ve already affected our bodies, and subsequently this container wouldn’t…”
“They get it, Schroeder,” interrupted AJ. He pulled back from examining the object inside the Thermos. “It’s fine guys. This’ll do.”
All the boys took turns peeking over the Thermos’s top. Though Wes had been closest to the stone after it had exposed itself, he still hadn’t examined it. It was a conical, faceted gem, emitting a bright green light between the bonds of some kind of copper-colored metal that wound around the stone in a slanted, geometric pattern. The design culminated at ornate caps on both ends. It was like a tiny lantern. Despite its recent weird behavior, it looked serene and kind of pretty. Wes leaned back to consider what all this meant.
Marc cautiously placed the Thermos lid on top, getting braver as he twisted the lid.
“Seriously, guys,” said Tyler. “Whatever that is, you should get it outta here.”
“It appears to be a magic stone that belongs to a wizard,” said Schroeder.
“Shhh,” said Marc.
Schroeder ignored the plea. “Since it was found in the possession of a wizard goblin familiar, it likely has valuable magic properties.”
“Dude!” said AJ. “Shu’up.”
“Excuse me?” said Tyler. He was smiling, but the smile looked like it was borrowed from a sneer. “Look, you guys, this isn’t some goofy fantasy movie. This is something dangerous, probably radioactive or…”
“It’s not!” shouted Wes, AJ, Marc, and Schroeder.
“You might be killing all of us right now,” said Tyler, undeterred. “A freakin’ Thermos isn’t going to do anything. You need to get that thing to a lab, somewhere.”
“No one can know it’s here,” said Wes, without realizing he had verbalized his thought.
“Why?” asked Tyler, not looking like he expected a legitimate answer.
“The, uh – the person that, uh… Well, I took it from a, uh…” Wes had no answer that sounded remotely rational. How could he tell Tyler that a goblin tried to steal it for some unknown master, who may or may not be an evil wizard? Actually, Schroeder kinda did, already. “I, uh, kinda had it for a while,” said Wes, feeling it was the easiest answer, and also the truth. “I found it when I dug out the fire pit in my camp. It kinda looked like an old arrowhead, so I kept it.” The more Wes talked about it, the sillier he felt. Until today, Wes had lived under the same assumption as 99.9% of the population that magic and goblins were just fiction. But right in his own backyard, he had stumbled on a significant discovery that a mythical creature was willing to expose itself and die in order to… what? What did it need to do? Give it to his master? For what purpose? What did this glowing stone do? All Wes knew was that it needed to be protected from those who might seek it for evil purposes. And from those who would accidentally, albeit innocently, give away its location.
“Look, guys,” said Tyler. “I’m sorry, but you don’t know what you’ve got. It looks really dangerous.” Tyler started to ascend the staircase.
“Wait!” cried Wes.
Tyler shook his head. “No playing around. Our parents need to know. They might know what to do.”
“No!” Wes ran after Tyler. “No one can know. It could – could…”
Wes clutched Tyler’s arm who shrugged it off easily. Tyler had a glaring physical advantage over Wes, especially since he was older, bigger, and played sports. Wes contorted, trying to regain purchase, but Tyler had already moved away too quickly and Wes lost balance, toppling into the banister. His back foot reached back to arrest his fall, only succeeding in slipping off the edge of another step. Wes tumbled down the stairs. He never lost consciousness, but he did see stars. As he lay on the basement floor, he wasn’t sure precisely what he was looking at until he saw a face.
“You ok?” said the face.
Wes’s vision was swimming, taking several moments to focus enough for him to recognize who was staring down at him.
Katie? “Uh huh,” said Wes groggily.
She looked up angrily at her brother. “Jesus, Ty!”
“I didn’t do anything! He fell.” Tyler slumped and shook his head. “I’m really sorry, Wes. Didn’t mean to…” He sighed and turned back to the upper stairs. “Just need to tell our parents, that’s all. For everyone’s safety.”
AJ and Marc made motions like they were going to intervene, but neither looked confident that they would fare any better than Wes. Tyler reached the top stair and opened the door.
“Congratulations, Ty, you just won douchebag of the year!” AJ taunted. “You weren’t even invited here, ya nark!”
For once, Wes was in agreement with one of AJ’s put-downs, and would’ve smiled if he wasn’t so concerned about the bigger picture. And if his head didn’t hurt so much.
“Ow,” he said softly.
“Seriously, are you ok?” asked Katie.
Instead of nodding, which might make him wince from the pain in his head, and discredit his brave façade, it felt safer to say, “Yeah,” in a whisper. Despite the sore circumstances, looking into Katie’s concerned eyes for that brief moment was really nice, and he was wishing she would look at him again. She was staring up the stairs, assumedly at Tyler, when her jaw suddenly dropped and she stopped blinking. Now what?
“Katie?” he asked.
No response. She was statue still. What the heck? Wes wrenched his aching head to see what had captivated her. What he saw captivated him too.
“I – I, don’t…” Tyler was backing up from the open door, supporting his weight against the wall of the landing. “It’s… Guys, I don’t…” Tyler was visibly shaking.
Katie hadn’t done much more than straighten up, still looking at the open stairwell door. AJ, Marc, and Schroeder were now at the bottom of the stairs, all equally speechless.
There were no adequate words that could explain what they all saw.
Outside the stairwell door should be AJ’s kitchen, and at the angle Wes at looking, he should see ceiling tiles and light fixtures. Instead, he was staring at blue skies and drifting clouds, as if the kitchen didn’t exist at all.
**End of sample**
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Publication Date: 01-18-2020
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